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SENATE APPROVES $5.4 BILLION INCREASE FOR EDUCATION BUDGET: Large Differences in House and Senate Budget Resolution Versions Could Spell Trouble in Conference

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"It will be impossible to develop a product everyone in both chambers will find perfect, but I am optimistic [House Budget Committee] Chairman [Jim] Nussle (R-IA) and I can produce a final product a majority will find acceptable,"

On March 17, the House and Senate each passed versions of the fiscal year 2006 congressional budget resolution, but not before the Senate added $5.4 billion for education and stripped $14 billion in mandatory spending cuts to Medicaid. These changes are expected to make it difficult for conferees to agree on a compromise after Congress returns from its spring recess at the beginning of April.

“It will be impossible to develop a product everyone in both chambers will find perfect, but I am optimistic [House Budget Committee] Chairman [Jim] Nussle (R-IA) and I can produce a final product a majority will find acceptable,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH).

On the Senate side, a handful of Republican moderates-Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mike DeWine (R-OH),Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Arlen Specter (R-PA)-joined Democrats to pass an amendment by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) that provided an increase of $5.4 billion for a variety of education programs. The amendment provided

  • $1.4 billion to increase the Pell Grant maximum to $4,500;
  • $1.6 billion to restore cuts to TRIO, GEAR UP, LEAP, and Perkins loans, and to provide for cost-of-college increases in work study, graduate education, and SEOG scholarships, which provide an additional source of aid for exceptionally needy students;
  • $975 million to restore cuts to job training/adult literacy; and
  • $1.3 billion to restore cuts to vocational education.

The amendment also provided money to extend federal student loan forgiveness from the current maximum of $17,500 to $23,000 for math, science, and special education teachers who agree to teach in high-need schools.

“Today Democrats and Republicans worked together on behalf of America’s students to turn this era of globalization into a new era of opportunity for all Americans. I am pleased by my amendment’s passage and the signal it sends that this Senate can come together and restore Bush’s education budget cuts so that … students can compete in the global economy,” Kennedy said.

Other education-related amendments approved by the Senate included a $500 million increase in funding for the U.S. Department of Education offered by Senator Specter and an amendment offered by Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) that increased funding for rural education by $29 million.

While the Senate was able to add money for education through these amendments, it still passed a Senate budget resolution that calls on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to make $2.1 billion in cuts to mandatory programs in FY 2006 and a total of $8.6 billion over five years.

The annual congressional budget resolution sets limits on the spending and tax legislation that Congress will consider for the rest of the year, but it is a nonbinding spending blueprint for Congress that is not signed by the president. Only the total amount of discretionary spending in the final budget resolution, not the specific program totals, is binding on the Appropriations Committees.

In his remarks prior to the vote on the Kennedy amendment, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) noted the nonbinding nature of the budget resolution. “I could not agree that [the $5.4 billion] will actually wind up adding money for education,” he said. “It gives the nonbinding suggestion that it be directed toward various higher education programs, but it does not guarantee it. The budget resolution controls the top-line discretionary number government-wide. No such suggestion is enforceable. There is no guarantee that this tax-and-spend amendment will result in one new dollar for education, let alone the programs suggested by the amendment.”

House Rejects Increases for Education

In the House of Representatives, Representative David Obey (D-WI) offered an amendment that would have increased spending by $15.8 billion, $8 billion of which would have gone to education and related programs. As Obey described it, the amendment would allow the House to “choose between the social Darwinism of the President’s budget and a different budget which more accurately reflects the message of the social gospel.”

To pay for the increase in spending, the amendment would have reduced the tax cut that individuals who make more than $1 million receive, from $140,000 to about $27,000. According to Obey, such an adjustment would save enough money to devote $10 billion to deficit reduction and an additional $16 billion for education, health, science, veterans, homeland security, environment, law enforcement, and community development.

Ultimately, the amendment was defeated by a vote of 180 to 242, with 3 Republicans-Representatives Michael Bilirakis (R-FL), Walter Jones (R-NC), and Heather Wilson (R-NM)-supporting it, and 24 Democrats voting against it. (The complete list of roll call votes on the Obey amendment is available at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2005/roll082.xml.)

The House budget resolution calls for the Education and the Workforce Committee to cut $2.1 billion from mandatory programs like student loans and school lunch in FY 2006 and $21.4 billion over five years.

What Happens Next?

Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) has said that there is virtually no way that a House-Senate conference committee would agree to the Senate’s decision to exempt Medicaid from the billions of dollars in cuts to entitlement programs that the president has suggested. The House’s budget plan calls for as much as $20 billion in cuts to Medicaid.

According to Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, “The ever-widening ideological rift between Senate GOP centrists and House Republican conservatives remains the biggest threat to a House-Senate compromise budget.” Ultimately, the battle may come down to whether enough Republican moderates are willing to accept cuts to Medicaid in order to save the budget resolution. Republican leaders in the House have expressed hope that the White House would get involved and help tip the balance to their side.

While many observers will be focusing on the size of the Medicaid cuts that emerge from conference, most people in the education community will be pushing Congress to accept the Senate version and its $6.3 billion increase for education programs.

If Congress fails to agree on a budget resolution, it would be a major setback for Republicans in Congress and President Bush. Without a budget resolution, any vote to cut entitlement programs such as Medicaid and student loans would not be protected from a filibuster-meaning that Republicans would need sixty votes in the Senate versus a simple majority if a budget resolution were in place. With only fifty-five Republicans in the Senate, reaching the sixty-vote threshold could prove very difficult, if not impossible.

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